House Republicans are crying foul over the Democrats' probe into the U.S. attorneys' firings, calling it a "hoax" and a "shell game" that is aimed not at fact-finding but instead at influencing the 2008 elections.
"There's a growing irritation among Republicans, because it's gone on so long. With all the digging you would expect to find something awkward or odd or unexplainable," said Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican.
Congressmen speaking on the record went only so far as to say that the investigation has yielded no results.
Privately, Republican aides with intimate knowledge of the probe describe a process driven by partisan politics from beginning to end.
"It is this big investigation of Republican manipulation of the executive branch's prosecutorial ability for partisan gain," said one senior House Republican staffer.
"What it has turned into is the Democratic manipulation of the legislative branch for partisan gain. It's a hoax, and a very expensive one," the staffer said.
Democrats say they have not found any evidence of wrongdoing because the White House has offered only private interviews with key administration officials, without a transcript.
"It's easy for some Republicans to complain about the process when they know full well that the White House has blocked Congress' efforts to get the full truth about the firing of independently minded U.S. attorneys," said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
The White House counters that Democrats have rejected President Bush's offer for interviews with administration officials, choosing instead to insist on public hearings.
The showdown between the executive and legislative branches has been at a stalemate for months. Republicans say Democrats are happy to let it remain that way.
"They have a stake in dragging this out, because they know it'll go through '08," said Fred Piccolo, Mr. Cannon's spokesman.
The senior Republican staffer said Democrats are "marketing the idea that there is Republican corruption," after a series of political scandals helped Democrats regain control of both the House and the Senate in elections last fall.
"If people outside the Beltway don't understand that in the end no real wrongdoing was found, but just have this impression that some hanky-panky was going on and Democrats held people accountable, it's a win for them," the Republican aide said.
Democrats have charged that the federal prosecutors were removed for investigating Republican officials or for not moving quickly enough on probes involving Democrats.
"The committee's investigation has already surfaced substantial evidence that many of these U.S. attorneys were fired for improper reasons, often because they refused to bring specious 'vote fraud' cases desired by Republican political operatives or otherwise brought or did not bring cases consistent with party interests," said Jonathan Godfrey, House Judiciary Committee spokesman.
Republicans say the attorneys are political appointees who serve at the authority of Mr. Bush.
"The administration used extremely poor political judgment in how it handled the dismissal," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican. "But there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anybody in the Justice Department or in the White House in the firing of these U.S. attorneys."
One Justice Department official has admitted to wrongdoing, but in a matter unrelated to the U.S. attorneys firings.
Monica Goodling, a former close aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, told Congress that she improperly screened the political beliefs of some applicants for career Justice Department jobs.
Democrats have paid little attention to that admission and have continued to press the White House for access to high-ranking officials such as Karl Rove, who announced this week that he will resign at the end of the month.
Democrats also will continue to pursue Mr. Gonzales.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, yesterday asked the Justice Department's inspector general to examine whether the attorney general gave misleading or dishonest testimony to his panel.